–Of Friends We Don’t Know

I live in the same neighborhood as Jim Moore, who’s a well-regarded and engaging Minnesota poet. Jim and I probably fall into the category of good acquaintances. I’ve seen him or his wife at the pool or gym or at the coffee shop or out walking their dog. I’ve attended readings where he’s been one of the readers; he’s been in the audience at least once when I read. We’re both married to photographers, and I knew Jim as the photo subject of an entire show before I knew him as a poet. Though he had serious bona fides as a war protestor during the Vietnam era, having gone to prison rather than be drafted, we discovered in one conversation that we both wonder about people who made that resistance all about themselves. And at some point, we also discovered we were born in the same town.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of our connections and contacts, but it’s close. Though Jim is a person I think fondly of, I’ve never been in his home or he in mine. When we’ve seen each other, it’s always been just by happenstance. Years could go by without our thinking we should plan to get together, because we never have. Yet recently when my husband told me a friend had loaned him Jim’s new book and then gave it to me, I not only read it immediately but found myself wanting to answer it with a poem (nothing more), which I jotted down on the grocery pad and then typed and emailed to him. The impulse to write and the moment I pressed the send button were maybe an hour apart, and Jim was in Italy when he read and answered my email.

There was an odd importance to this exchange. I’m not entirely certain why that’s the case, but I think it was dependent on the fact we don’t know each other better. Jim’s new book, Invisible Strings, has a name that itself is evocative of the experience, which was based on the particular telegraphy of poetry and on the remote connection of electronic communication. It was all so finite and so lacking in anything sensory and so devoid of the negotiations of friendship. And yet there it was—my letting him know that his book had spoken to me by responding with a small and compressed echo, and then his small echo back.

As it happened, while I read Jim’s poems, the baseball game was on. Occasionally I glanced up to check on how it was going for it, too, was part of my evening, which I was spending alone. It was an odd kind of aloneness since my mind was focused both on someone who was present in his poetry in a much more immediate way than he’s ever been for me in person and on a cast of strangers whose welfare and ability to achieve on the baseball field affect my sense of well being at least half of the year. Talk about invisible strings.

That, actually, is what I’m up to here with this long preface to some old thoughts and memories, most of them using baseball as their example. When my team, the Minnesota Twins, was in the 1991 World Series, I was taking graduate courses at the University of Minnesota. A couple of the faculty members arranged a baseball reading, and I couldn’t pass it up. It was an opportunity to share what I thought was a pretty good story, and one I feel now has a kinship to this Jim Moore anecdote. I announced my piece as “Roger and Me” and this is what I read:

As many, if not most of you know, Roger Angell, the fiction editor for the New Yorker (and the step-son of E.B. White), has written on baseball for The New Yorker for many years. I’ve brought part of a letter I wrote him on October 19, 1987 when the Twins were playing in the World Series.

 “Dear Mr. Angell:

“For a very long time, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to write and thank you for your baseball columns in The New Yorker, but it’s been the sort of thing that’s meant bits of sentences and ideas in the middle of the night that have never gotten as far as the typewriter or, by now, the word processor. Last month when it began to seem a real possibility that the Twins would win their division and probably go on to the World Series, I knew I couldn’t put it off much longer if I was going to do it.

“Let me explain.  As a child in Minnesota, I became a Twins fan when their franchise started, and I stayed a fan, though remote and inattentive, through school in the East and in the West. I did not really learn to love baseball until my husband and I moved to Wisconsin and I was trying both to raise young children and to learn how to write. There are, of course, natural gaps in sanity produced by both efforts, and baseball came to be a kind of restorative for me. I do not mean baseball on its actual playing field, but rather aural baseball —the received entity that passes from the air waves to the imagination —the daily assuring voices of Herb Carneal and Halsey Hall reminding me that for half the year anyway, the universe has one constant.

“When I discovered your New Yorker articles, your love of baseball increased my own. I learned more. The dimensions of both the game and its players became ideas as well as sounds. I had more props for the permanent baseball set in my mind (a nighttime diamond, I realize now, thinking of it.) I read your articles and hoped for mention of the players I’d learned to care about, but resigned myself to the occasional inclusion of Tony Oliva or Harmon Killebrew in a list of other players or a grousing latter day reference to the hideousness of ‘Dome ball.’

“But I’m worried now. The Twins are indeed in the World Series, and I’ve already seen you quoted in the local paper with a complaint about the artificial quality of baseball here —the lack of baseball silences —the electronic directions for noise, and I can’t bear to think, or really believe, that when you finally write about the Twins you will stress those things and miss what holds the Twins so firmly in that tradition of baseball experience that does not have its locus in a stadium at all.

“But to go back —I was in St. Louis visiting my aunt and uncle, and five years old, when I saw my first baseball game. I’ve been to only a handful of games since —one at Wrigley Field, a few at the old Met, a few at the Metrodome. Games seen in person are the aberrations in my baseball life, and the aberrations, I think, for most of baseball’s fans. When I visited St. Louis as a child, my aunt and I always listened to the Cardinals on the radio, and when my husband’s grandfather died, it was at home in Indiana, listening to the Cubs on the radio, and it is this kind of baseball —‘received’ as I said earlier, and existing as we make it up for ourselves —that the Twins this year are, heart and soul, a part of. Certainly I know from watching television that Gary Gaetti looks or at least smiles like Liza Minnelli, that Tom Brunansky might stand in for Tom Selleck and that Kent Hrbek’s exuberance is infectious and Kirby Puckett’s body a baseball first, but games are only televised occasionally here and I would have loved these players and their teammates without the visual confirmation. They are baseball and they’re easy to like because of who they seem to be and how they play the game. No mere stadium should or can alter that reality. It is still baseball that we have here —this continual bonding to a past that is too large and too comforting to be held to any place. I am waiting very eagerly to read that you think so, too.”

That is what I wrote to Roger Angell, and I really hoped for an answer. Not a letter. [I think it was still a while before I began to get brief notes from Mr. Angell about the stories I submitted.] What I wanted was an answer in the magazine itself, and I began to wait for the New Yorker with the same anticipation and trepidation that Nell, my main character in The Second Magician’s Tale, had when she waited for the witchcraft book she ordered when she was twelve. Both Nell and I, after weeks and weeks of impatience, were finally in luck. When the December 7, 1987 New Yorker article about the Series arrived, I raced through it, scanning quickly and, in spite of an early comment I noted from Roger Angell that he knew he sounded like an “old crab” when he talked about the Dome, very nervous that he wasn’t going to come through. Then I came to the heart of the article:

“Whenever a team wins a pennant—particularly a team that hasn’t had the experience before —its long-term fans slowly or suddenly realize that all this time they have been part of a vast and scattered but closely knit circle —a family, if you will, whose members almost seem to resemble each other: the same way of seeing things, the same excessive attachments. I think the genetic code that links each fan family, in any part of the country, is baseball by radio: the slow, daily and nightly summer-long recitativo of at-bats, strikes, fouls, outs, innings, catches, rallies, relays, slumps, despairs, hopes, and names —names above all —brought to us by a durable resident broadcaster whose tones and inflections and pauses we have come to know as well as we know any voice in our house. Baseball by television, no matter how deftly done, doesn’t work this way, because it is always a show that we must pay to watch, not with money but with our attention. Baseball by radio comes for free, because it allows us to attend to other things, to do almost anything we want to or need to get done, in the house or outside, or on the way to town, and still give part of our mind —part of our imagination, really —to what is going on out at the game. Howard Mohr, a Minnesota writer, contributed an essay to a literary page about the Twins that the Star Tribune ran this fall, and in it he said that his favorite way of following the Twins was while he was on a tractor, plowing by night. For Mohr and the other Twins-millions, the voice of the team for decades now has been Herb Carneal’s, on WCCO, and the night names he mentioned or talked about again and again this summer —Bruno, Tim, Kirby, Bert, Herbie, the G-Man, Dan, Frankie, Greg, Tom, and the others —were only the latest texture in a great unrolling fabric that goes back and back —Kitty, Butch, Roy, Rod, Koos, Rob, Leo, Tony, Harmon, Bert, Dean, Minch, César —and that, for a fan, connects a lifetime of summer sounds, and sets apart the time of year when days and nights feel always a little special, and October is only a distant possibility.”

I didn’t have to say more to the audience in that seminar room. They all smiled or laughed at what they knew was a connection. I’m sure they realized that when I first read that passage, and then read it again and again, I was thrilled. Not only did it say what I hoped it would say, confirming the familiar nature of my own baseball attachment (and protecting the Twins), but it also let me know my letter had arrived at its destination—the baseball mind of Mr. Angell—just as the poem I sent Jim Moore a quarter of a century later carved its own small and clear space.

I’m sure those listeners felt, as I did, that link of the imaginative life. Whether it comes from the disclosures of a pattern of words or our intimate awareness of tribal rituals—baseball together, music from the radio, observations of the political realm and its actors, our fear for an unknown child lost down a well or in an earthquake or a tsunami, so much of who we are comes in this sort of tangential and invisible way. It’s a shimmering thing, an electric pulse. It is something that exists in a limbic space with no mass. Yet we sense its weight. We know it speaks to us of a particular corner of ourselves where the kind of genetic code Roger Angell wrote of does its work, tapping out the shared life of strangers into a mysterious yet certain recognition.

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